Senior Year:  A Conversation with Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown

Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who has written the book for "Parade," and Jason Robert Brown, the young composer of "Songs for a New World" who has written the music and lyrics, talked with the editors of the Lincoln Center Theater Review about what drew them to the Leo Frank story and about their own collaborative process.

Editors:  We thought we'd start at the beginning.  Alfred, we've heard that you grew up with this story -- can you talk a little bit about that?

AU:  My mother's uncle, the man married to my grandmother's sister, was a German immigrant who came to America and started a pencil factor, the National Pencil Co.  And he hired Leo Frank as the factory supervisor.  He and his wife were the same age as my then-young grandparents.  My grandparents were in the same social setting as Lucille and Leo Frank and what happened to them was a devastating thing in a place like Atlanta.  It was the kind of society where people didn't talk about things like sex.  To have somebody stand up in court and say that Frank had had sex with the office girls and the office boys and have it be such a blatant lie was horrific to a proper man in a very arranged marriage to a good girl.
    When I was in high school a book about the case came out that we all read like it was the Bible, "Night Fell on Georgia."  My grandmother talked about it a little bit then.  But usually, if you mentioned it, people of my mother's generation would get up and walk out of the room.  It's like World War II veterans just don't want to talk about the war.  So, being a difficult little boy who was always asking the wrong questions -- I had to go this way.  I was fascinated with it always.  I read the books.  And I didn't know what to do with it, but I always thought it dramatic.
    And then Hal (I had known Hal the way we all know each other in the theater) asked me to come in for a meeting about a Sammy Davis musical that never happened.  So we sat around for a couple of years talking about ideas and one day I mentioned Leo Frank.  And he jumped up out of his chair and said, "That is the musical I want to do."  And that was six years ago.  Since then, he's never wavered in his enthusiasm.

JRB:  I'd known Hal for some time, through his daughter Daisy, and one day he called me in and said, "I want to talk to you about this new opera, it's an opera for Broadway.  It's going to be great and it's Alfred Uhry."  I went in for the meeting.  At the time, he's taken them out since, but at the time, Hal's office had all of his Tony awards in a row right as you walked in.  They were like a siren.  You'd just keep gawking at them.
    So Hal was telling me this story and gave me piles and piles and piles of research and I took them home and sat on my couch and I read them all in one night.  I'd never read anything about the case.  It was all a mystery to me.  And then there was a meeting with Alfred the next day.  I cam into he meeting and Hal said something about "You'll just write a couple of numbers and then we'll see about giving you some money or something."  At the time, I was living gloriously hand-to-mouth, so, faced with the idea that I might get money, I went home immediately and wrote a song that was completely off the mark in every respect -- as well it should have been.  We hadn't discussed the play at all.  But I just wanted to show Alfred that I knew how to write a piece of theatrical material that wasn't part of a revue, and I also wanted to say, "Give me some money and let's start working on this."  And I hope that the song accomplished all of those things.  About a week after that Alfred and I met at his farm up in Connecticut and we were there for two or three days and we got down a synopsis of the first three or four scenes.  And we've kept working.

Editors:  Alfred, what did you think?

AU:  Jason played me that first song I thought he was good, but how did I know?  I liked him and I heard the songs he wrote nd I thought he was really talented.  But this kind of subject takes a lot more than talent.  It's like when you work with a good actor, as I've been lucky enough to do.  They know where the good stuff is.  They know and they can just take it and run with it.  So I talked with Jason for a long time about the fact that I didn't want to write a show that was all about this wonderful righteous Jewish person an da vicious redneck because, as you know about me, I'm very Southern too.  And the Southern part of it broke my heart equally as much as the other part.  I told Jason what it was like living in the South and how it felt growing up and how people who were alive at the time of Leo Frank had believed in he Civil War as much as we all believe in the American Revolution.  And those who lived came home to find the devastated countryside and a ruined economy and they had to sell their farms and move to the city.  Daughters had to work -- imagine if your ten-year-old had to work in a factory?  It was a horrible thing.  And I told him all that.  So he wrote this song and I remember sitting in his apartment and starting to cry.  And I thought, "Well this is embarrassing, Alfred."

Editors:  Which song is this?

AU:  The first one, "The Old Red Hills of Home."

JRB:  I remember going over to Alfred's apartment with my notebook and he would talk and I would take notes on what he said.  And I used a certain amount of his actual words.  One of the things was "A man can grow his cotton and his crops" and I wrote that down and just stuck it right into the song.  And it's still there.

AU:  Also, the title of that song came from Mary Phagan's grave.  The inscription says something bout "the old red hills of Georgia."  So all of this stuff is very rooted, but clearly -- Jason's never been to the state of Georgia or anywhere in the south.

Editors:  Where are you from?

JRB:  Rockland County.

Editors:  Jason, what was it like to get so immersed in something that Alfred knew almost from the cradle?  How did you do it?

JRB:  We talked a lot.  I determined that I wasn't going to do a whole lot of primary research pretty early on.  I said that it was going to be Alfred's point of view and Alfred's milieu and I really thought, "Let him take the lead on it."
    But I did find a lot in myself to draw from, which I hadn't expected.  I had a lot of trouble making Leo sing in the show, but finally I was able to see him in my grandfather, my mother's father.  He was a very ethical, moral man, very upright and not, it seemed to me, really open-minded -- and his religion was very important to him, he was very proud of being a Jew -- and the more I thought about him the more I saw a model for Leo.  It isn't necessarily about getting into Alfred's head so much as it's about making sure we're all writing the same show and the same characters, and Alfred has really been willing to meet me halfway on that.

AU:  Jason can probably tell you more about the case now than I could.

Editors:  With rehearsals starting on Monday, do you imagine there will be further work on the play?

AU:  It would be the first time in history if there weren't, but we like to think not.  We're lucky.  We got to do just enough work on it.  We didn't have to overdo it.  In 1996, we had a reading in Philadelphia.  We had a week to put it together and six of the thirteen principals are still in the show now.  And everybody was weeping.  Jason's mother had to be taken out --

JRB:  Forcibly --

AU:  Everybody there was very moved by it.  I knew after that it wasn't just a fluke.  That it was something.

Editors:  Did you always think that it had to be a musical?

AU:  I knew it was passionate.  When Hal jumped out of his chair and said "That's a musical," I was surprised.  But I take that as a compliment.  What would be the point if Jason and I were doing a musical of "Good Will Hunting" or "Sleepless in Seattle" or, pardon the expression, "My Favorite Year"?  But if you say you're doing a musical about the Weimar Republic and everybody says "What the hell?" and it turns into "Cabaret," well, it's exciting for me to do something like that.

JRB:  It didn't ever strike me as an odd concept.  I was very comfortable.  A lot of successful musicals are fairly dark.  "Les Miz," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Miss Saigon" are substantially heavy pieces of theater -- they're not "Crazy for You."  And that's the milieu I grew up on.  I wanted to work on "Sweeney Todd" and "Evita."  I have no problem with cheerful pieces but I'm a sturm und drang kind of guy under the best of circumstances, as Alfred will attest.  I want guts and I want to be pulling out intestines, so to me this was very natural.

AU:  What I always saw as a saving grace about this as a musical is that incredible love story.  Since it really happened:  they fell in love after they were married and under the worst set of circumstances possible.
    And I think I figured it out from the letters or having known my grandmother, imagining what my grandmother would have been like.  And seeing pictures of Leo Frank and having known people of that generation.  It just made sense; it all clicked to me.  We were writing a show about a very uptight man who when trouble came learned both to open up to himself and to his wife, to become brave.  And I knew that Lucille had emerged as some sort of heroine, a good little girl becoming somebody who gradually becomes her husband's voice.  I sort of knew her but I don't remember, because I was a little boy.  You know how your grandmother's friends are just other old ladies.  So, she was another old lady.  She always kept her name.  That was one thing that my grandmother always said.  She was a vendeuse at a ladies' dress store.  She always signed her check Mrs. Leo M. Frank.  And she chose to live out all her life as that.  She didn't remarry.  I wanted to write a love story.  And I think without the love story we wouldn't have wanted to work on it.  It puts everything in context.

Editors:  What are you most looking forward to at this point?

AU:  Just the whole process.

JRB:  I'm really looking forward to it being finished.  We've spent a long time thinking about it and being ready for it and most of the time we've also been kind of enmeshed in other things on the side and I'm really looking forward to --

AU:  Just to wallowing --

JRB:  Focusing on this one wonderful thing that I've been dreaming about.

AU:  Those six actors who have been with us from the beginning call this senior year.
    What I dread, though is the first preview.  The first real audience is terrifying.  Although this is better because it's not just me, it's Jason too.

JRB:  You know more about this than I do.  It hadn't occurred to me to get nervous about the first preview until you just said that.

AU:  Luckily we've got a lot of wise hands around.  A whole little Leo Frank family.

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